The highest manifestation of life consists in this: that a being governs its own actions.
St. Thomas Aquinas
Religion matters in conflict and conflict resolution. Effective conflict resolution is too complex an endeavour to forego the contributions of any relevant actor, religious or not. It is therefore vital to better understand the role of religion in conflict and to strengthen religion’s positive contribution for conflict resolution. It is in the joint collaboration of academics, policy makers, and practitioners, religious and secular, that the potential for change is astounding.
Christine Schliesser and co-authors
Introduction and background
With what appears to be the loss of influence and even relevance by some religions, especially in the West, the power and importance of religion in conflict research and practice have been marginalized to the point where the juxtapositioning of religion and conflict resolution in research and debate is a relative rarity. It is, however, as we will see, simply not fair, accurate or effective conflict resolution to argue that religion is a private matter, and that it should be ignored by all and practiced by those who choose to do so.
Despite rumours of its demise, religion remains a powerful force in the lives of the majority of people globally, and the fact that content, practice patterns and religious habits may have changed does not detract from the observable fact that religion continues to play that important role in the lives of people and their conflicts. Even a cursory glance at conflict examples, such as some of the African national or regional conflicts, partisan battles between American politicians and several other examples will confirm that religion runs through many of our conflicts whether we seek to acknowledge or minimize its effect or not.
Religions also often seem like self-contained disciplines where conflict should not happen, where it should be minimized, or where existing conflicts should be dealt with according to the precepts and faith-based understanding and experience of that particular religion or group. To an extent this is true, and we will build on that realization. But it is equally true, and a regularly observable fact, that most religious groups are ill-equipped to deal with modern conflict, either as far as their internal conflicts are concerned, in interfaith dialogue or in dealing with the external world as they of course inevitably must.
In a very real and important sense both these fields of human endeavour, religion and conflict resolution, play practical and meaningful roles in trying to understand, address and resolve human conflicts. I will argue here that despite these seemingly shared goals, these two fields are still not as synchronized and collaborative as they could be, and that this is to the disadvantage of organized religion globally.
Focus of the article
This study will approach the questions raised from a conflict resolution perspective, and argue that religions should add to their existing (and generally impressive) conflict management skillsets by purposefully studying modern conflict resolution theory, practice and techniques, and then at some level incorporate this in their teachings and services to their communities. The article will highlight this suggestion from two perspectives, firstly how religions can internalize these conflict skills and what benefit such communities can derive from such projects, and secondly how conflict practitioners should approach faith-based conflicts so as to be maximally respectful and efficient, given the specific environment.
A few working concepts clarified
For purposes of our study here I will be dealing with “religion” in as wide a sense as possible. I do not wish to side-track the discussion into what religion really means, who qualifies, and neither do we need to get into the specifics and nuances that may be relevant and important to the conflict practitioner who needs to execute a specific mandate as may be relevant to a particular faith or denomination. We are trying to make progress with a much undervalued and neglected field, and further study and debate can hone in on perceived distinctions and specializations. I will often refer to the concept of “conflict resolution”. This is a very technical term, with a large variety of nuances, and consensus even in the field itself is often hard to come by. I hope however that, like love, we all have a good idea of the meaning of the term, even though it would be hard to accurately define it always.
I find it best to view conflict resolution as a toolbox comprising a large number of strategies and techniques, all designed to effectively and responsibly deal with conflict in all of its manifestations, and which will include tools such as mediation, peacebuilding and others.
The case for an increased study and application of conflict knowledge in religious environments
Religions have their own important internal understanding of, experience in and solutions to deal with conflict in its various manifestations. Such conflict is explained in a faith-based framework, and here we can think of explanations ranging from the fall of man, God’s will, karma and several other such frameworks. These understandings often flow from that faith’s specific ontological commitments and tends to set up a highly efficient way to view the world, its conflicts and proper responses to it.
In the process, meaning and solutions are offered, and up to that stage in our assessment the field of conflict resolution, whether as an academic or practical application, has much to learn from faith based conflict approaches.
Recent research and case studies in conflict management have however shown improved understanding of certain important conflicts and their consequences that should trouble responsible religious leaders, and which knowledge should ideally prompt the responses discussed here. We will look at only a few of these results here, as being indicative of a very comprehensive argument in favour of the main thesis of the article.
As we will see, none of this amounts to any criticism of religion or its tenets in general, or requires any amendment of those principles at all, in particular. Understanding and adopting these new insights will simply allow such a faith organization (at any level) to better and more effectively deal with its conflicts (internal and external), without requiring any amendment to its own faith.
To then return to the examples where conflict studies, research and practice should prompt debate and implementation in these communities, we can focus on the following instances:
(i) Religions have a specific and highly effective way of defining and explaining conflicts. Terms such as sin, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation or even justice have powerful explanatory power and specific meanings internally in that community. While these faiths have generally, and inarguably, stood the test of centuries of debate and lived experience, there is nevertheless a meaningful space between the framework itself and techniques on how to achieve the goals stated in that faith. It is good and well to teach me to forgive, to make repair, to accept, but how is that achieved in the modern world? If the journey’s end is clear, are we always that clear on the map on how to get there? Here conflict resolution offers a rich, established and tested range of techniques and teachings to achieve exactly these faith goals, in a manner absolutely congruous with the internal rules of that community.
(ii) Religions often require, by virtue of their internal understanding and approach to conflict, that unintended but harmful remedies to such conflicts are applied, which then leads to unintended consequences such as repeated and cyclical conflicts, unresolved conflicts (with additional conflicts arising out of that), resentment, suppressed emotions, a loss of trust in the involved persons and even in the organization itself, conflict avoidance and conflict rigidity. These are the consequences when members of that community are expected to forgive injustices before they are ready to do so, when truly harmful conduct is not resolved through appropriate justice, when parties in conflict are given an authoritative decision from that religious leader(s) without themselves having adequately worked at their own resolution and so on.
If we accept, as I suggest that we should do, that our conflicts are generally inevitable but that creative, transformative opportunities arise as a result of such conflict, then modern conflict research shows us how these religions are measurably working against their own best interests (and that of their members) in the manner in which these conflicts are managed. In many instances, and despite it being examples of other important failings, the global sex scandals so visible in many churches and religious organizations are manifestations of atrocious conflict management abilities.
(iii) The general religious framework for conflict resolution, at least the internal version of it, has fallen too far behind the more secular versions available, and this is frustrating a large amount of faith community members. The multi-disciplinary field of conflict resolution, including psychology, neurobiology, social sciences and several other disciplines all point to modern individuals and groups requiring and expecting a very different level of conflict management skills than what they are often receiving at, ironically, their religious centres, where a lot of them expect it to be available to them.
This research shows that people need to express their conflicts in a particular manner, that they need to be seen and heard in a particular manner, and that the process of differentiation in conflict is as important as the resolution thereof, that the question of face in conflict resolution is crucial but only rarely understood by conflict managers and several other conclusions that we continue to ignore at our peril. This understandably then also leads to a loss of trust in that religious community, a search elsewhere for answers, and a generally reduced experience of the efficiency and practical utility of that faith, which like it or not remains an important component in many people’s faith journeys.
(iv) Modern conflict resolution has recently done momentous work in identifying, understanding and resolving the so-called identity or value based conflicts. This, briefly put, deals with our identities, how we see ourselves and the world, and of course most of our conflicts at some level do involve threats or challenges to our identities, our values. This research clearly shows how conventional remedies and strategies in dealing with these conflicts are not just ineffective, but actually counterproductive, how strategies based on factual arguments only, criticism or a lack of correctly applied accountability actually reinforces behaviour and these conflicts, polarization and cyclical conflicts. Religions, nearly by definition, both work with the identity and values of their adherents, and also need to understand how identity conflicts (at some level, most conflicts are identity conflicts) are important, and how much damage is done in dealing with them incorrectly.
All religions claim to understand humans at a complex, advanced level. It should follow that the leaders in such religions should also understand, and be able to effectively manage conflict, that most human of experiences.
How religions can apply conflict resolution and mediation Religions, at their organizational levels, are traditionally reluctant and slow to make any changes to existing procedures and results. If it is not perceived as broken, why fix it, right? I would argue that, on the one hand, the evidence for a conflict resolution upgrade in religious praxis is so compelling and, on the other hand, the required measures to give practical effect to these insights are so easy, so affordable that such conflict improvements are really very hard to argue against, and that ignoring the debate is an instance of irresponsible leadership neglect.
Let us look at a few of these practical strategies that a religious community can implement, with immediate effect.
(a) Internal policies and documents can be amended so as to reflect the insights discussed, and this can be applied to leadership and team training, employment contracts and internal conflict processes, to mention only a few.
(b) Religious leaders of all ranks can be privately trained to be more conflict competent at levels relevant to that faith, that person and that place, with its own conflict particularities. In this way the conflicts of the rural parish can be distinguished and addressed differently from the urban parish, as an example. Effective conflict competency is a fully transferable skill, and need not be outsourced to external consultants. This increased conflict competency can be tailor-made as desired, and constitutes a real skill that such leaders can use internally, and of course apply also when dealing with secular or other faith interactions or potential conflicts.
Any advanced coaching in mediation, as the most visible and well-known conflict tool, will be a perfect fit for a religious leader’s engagement with conflict, especially given most religions’ focus and emphasis on taking responsibility, avoiding litigation or other conflict resolution strategies, parties working together towards their solutions and so on.
(c) Annual, regular or even once-off workshops for the lay members of that religious community can be presented, enabling such members to become conflict competent at a chosen level, all under the auspices of and complying with the views and tenets of that religious community. This provides these lay members, just as in the case of religious leaders, with a real world skill that they can apply in their religious activities and interactions, but also in the secular world, their families and their workplaces.
(d) This leads to a centering of that religious leadership in the community’s wider conflicts, and if done correctly, should have a positive effect on parameters such as divorces, litigation and other unresolved conflicts that at present do not directly involve the religious leadership itself.
(e) Such a religious community can, by incorporating these conflict principles at some level for their youth members, play a crucial role in forming young adults by providing them with a faith-based conflict competency that will be of practical value both inside and outside of that religious community. So many South African communities have large numbers of vulnerable youth, and in providing them with conflict skills that complement and work from their faith is a wonderful, lasting gift.
The list of these manageable, measurable benefits is a long one, and can of course be expanded at grassroots level by the creativity and energy of the leaders of that community, who would be best placed to understand the dynamics of that people, time and place.
How conflict practitioners and mediators should function in faith-based conflicts
People who have some level of religious commitment will often bring to bear such religious views, strategies and solutions to their conflicts, and I am of course not suggesting that each, or most, conflicts are religious conflicts. There are however two very important reasons why conflict practitioners, especially mediators, should be adept at some level of understanding of conflicts that can be termed religious by nature, for instance where the subject matter of the conflict is clearly a religious dispute, or where one or more of the parties are clearly influenced by religious considerations.
The first of these reasons is the observation that religion continues to play a very important role in the lives of many people (some would say the majority of people globally), and such religious views play a very important part of that person’s very identity, of their values. To simply go ahead and conduct all conflict resolution processes, and mediation in particular, on a secular basis is effectively to silence or marginalize the religious person(s). If such a person is not allowed to express herself fully, and to have to ignore an important part of her identity, such a conflict party will evidently be prejudiced.
Secondly, conflict resolution in general, and mediation in particular, by definition allows the parties to express them fully, and it realizes that true conflict transformation can only occur when conflicts are adequately addressed. It follows then that conflicting parties must be allowed to make use of their true and full identities in being guided by mediators, and that no important part of such identity can be subjugated or excluded. It is therefore simply good conflict / mediation practice to fully understand the religious person’s views, emotions and thought processes as part of the resolution of the conflict. This is an often overlooked or minimized aspect of conflict resolution practice.
Conflict practitioners can also, in order to give better effect to these two facts, consider appointing specifically religious practitioners in specifically religious conflicts (a practice known in conflict literature as “matching”). In this manner, for instance, a Catholic conflict practitioner / mediator may be better suited, and more acceptable to the parties, in a dispute regarding Catholic issues and so on. A non-religious mediator, or a mediator from a significantly different faith or even denomination may very well miss important conflict clues, signs and even resolution opportunities. If the point has not been abundantly clear up to now, we can also simply point out here that a conflict practitioner need not be religious him-or herself in order to accept and implement these insights.
I believe firmly that, as strange as this may sound, the synergy between religion and conflict resolution is a vast, untapped field of potential for both fields. Other than obvious stumbling blocks, such as a measure of institutional isolation all around, some reticence or insecurity as to the work that lies ahead, professional inertia or even old fashioned laziness, there can be no serious objection to extensive and vigorous collaboration between the fields.
It will require a minimal level of time spent in some debate and planning, it can be applied at national or even street level, it need not cost anything more than an initial few pennies, it does not require extensive buy-in from institutions, it can quickly become a completely internalized and tailor-made skill (for the religions involved) and an interesting and meaningful branch of study and practice (for conflict researchers and practitioners). The goals of the two fields should be completely compatible, with limitless opportunities for training, research and practice open to all, and religions would not lose any autonomy or faith values in the process.
It is an unpleasant irony to notice the global acceptance of conflict resolution (especially mediation), including for instance at the United Nations (with important formalization, especially since 2012) and in several global conflicts, but in the environment where it should be so ideally suited, the religious environment, we see so little development, progress and mutual understanding. This has, in my view, been largely the fault of the conflict resolution discipline, in not being particularly efficient (or interested) in the “marketing” of the developments and potential of conflict resolution.
Given the significant benefits and the negligible cost and effort required to internalize and obtain these benefits I sincerely hope that articles like this would in the next few months and years spark a debate on this topic, and that at least some faith communities will commit to this potential, and that we will soon see the seeds of growth and hope that we are responsible for.
Suggested reading list
1. On the significance of religion in conflict and conflict resolution by Christine Schliesser, S. Ayse Kadayifci-Orellana and Pauline Kollontai, Routledge (2021)
2. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022)
3. Extensive conflict resolution tools available at www.conflict-conversations.co.za
Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)
Andre Vlok February 2023